Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Sharon starts to fade from the front page


Ariel Sharon left the political stage with a bang, but a sense of quiet acceptance has settled over
Israel as the 77-year-old leader lies comatose in a Jerusalem hospital.

Two weeks after he was felled by a massive stroke, updates on the prime minister's condition are taking second or third billing in Israeli media to reports on Jewish settler unrest in the
West Bank city of Hebron or regional cases of bird flu.

Almost no one in Israel expects the former general, a dominating force in the Middle East for decades, to return to office.

The political focus has shifted to Ehud Olmert, the career politician who replaced him, as Israel moves toward a March 28 general election.

"We can't just rest our hopes on one man, much as I admire him," Yaakov Sheetrit, a Jerusalem shopkeeper, said about Sharon. "I want someone to preserve what he built."

Sharon staked a claim to Israel's political center by withdrawing settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip last September and forming a new party, Kadima, after bolting the right-wing Likud.

Many Israelis saw Sharon as a strong leader who could make the bold decisions needed to end conflict with the Palestinians.

He leaves behind a party system in flux, after leadership changes in the Likud and center-left Labor, and a mostly untested generation of politicians trying to fill his shoes.

Olmert, a former two-term mayor of Jerusalem, has received high marks in Israeli opinion polls for a smooth transfer of power. The surveys show Kadima, with Olmert at its helm, on course to win the national ballot.